What is it about J.R.R Tolkien that speaks so powerfully? What are the roots of his enchanting genius?
In my editorial for the new Tolkien theme issue of the St. Austin Review, I state that the very word “Tolkien” has great power of enchantment. Seeing it, or hearing it spoken, brings to life strange and enchanting places – Valinor, Gondolin, Lothlorien, Rivendell, Isengard, Mordor – and strange and enchanting faces: Gandalf, Frodo, Bilbo, Elrond, Éowyn, Aragorn, Galadriel.
As Tolkien himself reminds us in his seminal essay/lecture “On Fairy-Stories”, the very spelling of a word has great powers of enchantment. “Small wonder,” he reminds us, “that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.” To spell a word is to cast a spell. To utter a word is to tell a story. If this is true of words in general, it is especially true of enchanted words. The spelling of “Tolkien” casts a spell. The uttering of the name tells a story. Indeed, this particular name casts many spells and tells many stories. One might be tempted to say that it is one name to call them all and in the enchantment find them.
But what is it about Tolkien that speaks so powerfully? What are the roots of his enchanting genius?
The answers to these questions are given in the new issue of the St. Austin Review in which the many facets of Tolkien’s multifarious gifts are discussed by multifarious writers. William Randall Lancaster sees his gifts as being rooted in fellowship and in the deep friendships he forged with those with whom he shared a kinship of spirit. There were the school friends, with whom he formed a Tea Club, most of whom were killed in the trenches of World War One; there was his wife, with whom he remained married till death did they part, who inspired him to write his greatest love story, “Beren and Luthien”; and, of course, there was the group of friends, known collectively as the Inklings, with whom he gathered every week, the most important of whom was C. S. Lewis.
Although Lewis’s influence on Tolkien as a “great encourager” is well-documented, as is Tolkien’s influence on Lewis, especially with respect to the latter’s conversion to Christianity, Bradley J. Birzer insists that Tolkien was also influenced by another member of the Inklings, Owen Barfield, citing “Tolkien’s Barfieldian Romanticism”. Dr. Birzer will be well-known to readers of The Imaginative Conservative, as will Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who also contributes an essay to the new Tolkien issue. Fr. Longenecker sees a shared liturgical rootedness in Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor, which is made manifest in their love for the Mass and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
If Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor are not usually seen as kindred spirits, the same can be said of Tolkien and Oscar Wilde. Yet Ana Rowan and Jason Waskovich see a deep affinity rooted in the shared love of Tolkien and Wilde of fairy stories. Miss Rowan compares the way that both writers approach the truths to be told in fairytales and Mr. Waskovich sees parallels between the corrupting of Gollum through his being possessed by the “magic” of the Ring and the corrupting of Dorian Gray through his being possessed by the “magic” of the Picture.
A less surprising coupling than that which pairs Tolkien with Flannery O’Connor or Oscar Wilde, is the coupling of Tolkien with G. K. Chesterton which Mina Milburn stresses in her contemplative musings on “The Lure of Fantastic Worlds”:
The spirit of Chesterton is infectious and if you haven’t made his acquaintance nor yet taken the time to become familiar with his style, I recommend that you do so immediately as he serves a very good tonic for this noxious age in which we’ve landed. Besides, Tolkien was quite fond of him and that ought to be recommendation enough for anyone.
Moving on from the roots of fellowship and kinship of spirit, Daniel Hubin stresses in another essay gracing the new issue that Tolkien’s roots go deep into history, inspired by the Christian vision of history as the long temporal defeat which contains glimpses of final and eternal victory. In similar vein, Timothy D. Lusch argues that Tolkien’s imaginative realm is rooted in Anglo-Saxon spirituality, while Stephen Brady sees Tolkien’s love for the Welsh language as the “deep roots not reached by the frost”.
The classical composer, Michael Kurek, sees “analogies to music” in the flow and form of The Lord of the Rings:
The great, “long-winded” Romantic composers like Brahms, Wagner, and Bruckner require the same patience and attention to their sometimes parenthetical and beautifully crafted transitional moments that is required by The Lord of the Rings and other densely descriptive literary works (Thomas Mann and William Faulkner come to mind).
Finally, for those seeking a deeper understanding of the philosophical roots of Tolkien’s politics, Louis Markos reviews Joshua Hren’s excellent book, Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J. R. R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy.
All in all, the new Tolkien theme issue of the St. Austin Review illustrates the panoramic scope of Tolkien’s vision of reality and the rootedness of his genius in the soil and soul of Christendom.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.